Why You Should Leave the Leaves

This article was written by Laura Tangley and first appeared on the National Wildlife Foundation

Savvy gardeners know that keeping fallen leaves on their property benefits wildlife and the environment

IT'S THAT TIME OF YEAR AGAIN: The air turns crisp, the leaves turn red and gold and homeowners turn to the annual chore known as “fall garden cleanup”—including disposal of those leaves after they fall to the ground.

Traditionally, leaf removal has entailed three steps: Rake leaves (or blast them with a blower) into piles, transfer the piles to bags and place the bags out to be hauled off to a landfill. Yet, increasingly, conservationists say these actions not only harm the environment but rob your garden of nutrients while destroying wildlife habitat. The alternative? “Let fallen leaves stay on your property says National Wildlife Federation Naturalist David Mizejewski.

Leaves in Landfills

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, leaves and other yard debris account for more than 13 percent of the nation’s solid waste—a whopping 33 million tons a year.Without enough oxygen to decompose, this organic matter releases the greenhouse gas methane, says Joe Lamp’l, author of The Green Gardener’s Guide. In fact, solid-waste landfills are the largest U.S. source of man-made methane—and that’s aside from the carbon dioxide generated by gas-powered blowers and trucks used in leaf disposal.

For gardeners, turning leaves into solid waste is wasteful. “Fallen leaves offer a double benefit,” Mizejewski says. “Leaves form a natural mulch that helps suppress weeds and fertilizes the soil as it breaks down. Why spend money on mulch and fertilizer when you can make your own?”

Removing leaves also eliminates vital wildlife habitat. Critters ranging from turtles and toadsto birds, mammals and invertebrates rely on leaf litter for food, shelter and nesting material. Many moth and butterfly caterpillars overwinter in fallen leaves before emerging in spring.

Need one more reason to leave the leaves? “The less time you spend raking leaves,” Mizejewski says, “the more time you’ll have to enjoy the gorgeous fall weather and the wildlife that visits your garden...